An appeal by photographer Bill Frakes contesting a Title IX complaint that he sexually harassed a female student while working as a visiting professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has been denied.
The World-Herald in Omaha, Nebraska reported this week that it obtained a 35-page confidential ruling, in which the hearing officer rejected Frakes’ appeal, saying a “preponderance of the evidence” upheld the initial ruling that Frakes had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy. The World-Herald account of the final report said Frakes said that the charges were “unfounded.”
The initial ruling issued in July concluded that the preponderance of the evidence showed Frakes had sexually harassed student Calla Kessler by making unwanted sexual comments about her body. Other witnesses reported they heard Frakes make similar comments about female students’ bodies and their clothing. The initial ruling concluded that students were afraid to confront Frakes because he presented a perceived position of power and influence in the industry and that the students feared he could negatively impact their careers.
Frakes would not comment on the ruling, citing confidentiality orders from the university, but this week told the NPPA: “I sincerely regret any angst that I may have caused any students. I will take what I learned from this experience to better myself and to continue making positive change through photography.”
Frakes was not accused of assault or of touching students inappropriately. The appeals hearing — an administrative procedure affecting Frakes’ employment at the school — upheld the initial finding that Frakes had violated the university’s policies on sexual harassment which are violations but not criminal charges. The World-Herald reported that during the appeal hearing, there were character witnesses who testified that they had not heard Frakes make disparaging remarks towards women.
Frakes had been on a one-year teaching assignment at UNL that was to have run through the Fall semester, but his 2017 Fall Semester classes have been canceled. Following the appeal ruling, when asked if Frakes would teach at the university in the future, university spokesman Sam Smith replied via email; “At this time, there are no expectations for that to happen.”
Frakes does not expect to be in the classroom again soon. “I currently have no plans to teach,” he told the NPPA.
In the initial harassment complaint obtained by the NPPA, witnesses testified that Frakes would often refer to himself as a Pulitzer Prize winner to emphasize his standing in the profession. The testimony also alleged that he would remind them that he knew editors in New York and that his influence could affect their chances for internships or jobs. Kessler and others stated they felt that it was intimidating and that they were afraid to confront him about his behavior because of his influence in the industry.
In the complaint, Frakes was also accused by witnesses of regularly making remarks to female students about their bodies or sexual comments about other women’s bodies. Witnesses also said he would scroll through photos of scantily clad women on his cell phone, in obvious view of female students. Some students who were involved in editing or reviewing Frakes’ photos said he would take off-topic photos that framed close-ups of women’s breasts or rear ends, sometimes even women who were photo assistants.
There were also witnesses that said they heard Frakes verbally abusing Kessler during the Kentucky Derby where she was part of a team of students assisting Frakes with his complicated system of remote cameras. Frakes accused her of being “stupid” because he said the cameras she was assigned did not fire, but a male photographer who had a similar issue was not reprimanded. Failures in remote camera set-ups are not uncommon and can be due to technical malfunctions or equipment failure.
Kessler filed the complaint while a junior at UNL, and came forward to NPPA asking to be identified after the initial ruling but before the appeal hearing. Because of a confidentiality order issued by the university, Kessler is not commenting directly on the complaint and the proceedings, and neither is Frakes nor anyone else connected to the investigation.
“I’m extremely appreciative of how the photo community, especially the women, encouraged me and supported me through this process,” Kessler said during an interview this week. “It can be a really isolating experience without the constant reminder that you have an army of women behind you.”
Both men and women were participants in the complaint.
“I encourage men to call people out if you witness it,” Kessler said about harassment. “Be an ally in words. Be an ally in action.”
Frakes has been well-known through most of his more than 30 years in photojournalism. In 1983, he was named Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year competition, which at the time was sponsored by the University of Missouri and the National Press Photographers Association. He was a staff photographer at Sports Illustrated until the entire photo staff was laid off in 2015. He worked at the Miami Herald when the newspaper’s staff won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of Hurricane Andrew.
Frakes was also a Nikon Ambassador, a member of a group of elite professionals who are on contract to promote the camera brand. His bio and photo disappeared from the Nikon Ambassadors website at the beginning of October, after the complaint was filed but before the final hearing. A Nikon spokesman confirmed to NPPA that “Mr. Frakes is not currently a Nikon Ambassador.”
During his teaching assignment at UNL when the incidents presented in the complaint occurred, Frakes worked with students on “Wounds of Whiteclay: Nebraska’s Shameful Legacy.” The student project focused on Whiteclay, Nebraska, an unincorporated town of 12 residents that annually sells more than 3.6 million cans of beer, primarily to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where there are no alcohol sales.
The final project was highly acclaimed, winning the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism grand prize. The project won over entries from the New Yorker, National Geographic, HBO and Univision. It was the first time a student project had won the grand prize.
“Despite the internal strife, we still had to report, because it was such an important story,” Kessler said about working on the Whiteclay project. “The thing that it taught me most is that you have to separate your personal life from what you’re shooting to best focus on the story that you're working on.”
Professor Joe Starita was the lead instructor for the project. He is also restricted from commenting on the harassment complaint, but he said that the course was very beneficial to the students.
“The ‘Wounds of Whiteclay' project was instrumental in teaching these young student journalists a very simple lesson: If you work hard enough, dig deep enough and shine a harsh light on a dark corner long enough, you can move the social justice needle in a way that produces hope for a community that had lost all hope,” Starita told the NPPA. He noted that four liquor stores in Whiteclay have shut down since the report published.
The Whiteclay story was a project the UNL journalism school produced with students, something the school has been doing for a few years. The harassment complaint has not changed the school’s plans to continue producing journalism projects. The latest project started in August with the Fall Semester and is an investigation into TransCanada’s plans to build an oil pipeline in Nebraska crossing land that is ecologically sensitive to farmers and also sacred to Native Americans.
“Using drones, 360 video, still photographs, audio tape and notebooks, this new group is employing the same kind of vigor, determination and relentless reporting that was a hallmark of the Whiteclay project. Ultimately, their collective work – as was the case with Whiteclay – will be showcased on a sophisticated website,” Starita said.
Kessler has been away from the UNL campus working at photography internships with The Washington Post and the Palm Beach Post. She is returning to the UNL campus for the Spring Semester and has been hired for a second internship with The Washington Post for the summer of 2018.